The Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) is the most northerly representative of the mainly tropical Central American family Ptilogonatidae, the silky flycatchers.

Physical description

The Phainopepla is a striking bird, 16-20 cm long with a noticeable crest and a long tail; it is slender, and has an upright posture when it perches. Its bill is short and slender.

The male is glossy black, and has a white wing patch that is visible when it flies.

The female is plain gray and has a lighter gray wing patch.

Both sexes have red eyes, but these are more noticeable in the female than the male.

Range and habitat

The Phainopepla ranges as far north as central California with the San Joaquin Valley and southern Utah, and south to central Mexico, the interior Mexican Plateau region; the southern edge of the plateau, the transverse mountains is its non-breeding home. It is found in hot areas, including desert oases, and is readily seen in the deserts of Arizona and southern California.


Berries, any small insects, fruits, vegetables. Phainopepla have a specialized mechanism in their gizzard that shucks berry skins off the fruit and packs the skins separately from the rest of the fruit into the intestines for more efficient digestion. So far this is the only known bird able to do this.

Its chief food is the berries of the Desert Mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum), but since these are only available seasonally in the northern parts of its range, it also eats the berries of other trees such as juniper and elderberry, and insects, hawking for them in flight like a flycatcher. It is an important vector for the mistletoe seeds. When there is enough mistletoe berries they will often congregate in the hundreds.


It nests in the spring. The eggs are dray or pink and speckled, and the incubation, done by both the male and female, takes fifteen days.

The young will be reared by the parents for up to nineteen more days.

Interesting habits

  • Phainopeplas have been found to imitate the calls of twelve other species, such as the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo lineatus), and the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).


  1. [1]; Accessed 2/25/07
  2. Chu, M (2001) The Condor; The Condor 103(2):389-395

Other Web Resources: Silky Flycatcher InformationSilky Flycatcher Species Photo Gallery

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